The Confederate Flag: Rebel or Racist?
ENG 304 Technical Communication
24 February 2004
In the early Eighties, I had a huge crush on the blonde one. I may have first noticed boys on account of Bo and Luke, the cousins on The Dukes of Hazzard. I watched anxiously as the Dukes outran the sheriff in their orange muscle car. Paying no attention to the meaning of the car’s name, I cheered as the “General Lee” survived many hair-raising adventures. The horn that sounded the Dixie and the Confederate flag atop the roof were only accessories on a car that, to me, symbolized the “good old boys, never meanin' no harm....” Back then it never occurred to me that it was a telling portrayal of the southern lifestyle leftover from the civil war. The Dukes were “fightin' the system like two modern-day Robin Hoods.” They were rebels.
If these two “good old boys” were on television today, would the public respond differently? Would I feel differently about them? The “General Lee,” with the Dixie horn and the Confederate flag on the roof, would probably strike me as rather distasteful. Twenty years later, a shift towards sensitivity and political correctness has transformed our culture. We are being trained to be intolerant of prejudices and bigotry of all kinds. The Confederate flag is no longer merely a symbol of Southern pride and heritage, but has also come to represent racism and divisiveness to some people. I am interested in finding out how much of society considers it offensive. When they see it being displayed, do people generally feel alienated or proud? Overall, is the Confederate flag enthusiast perceived as a racist or a rebel? I’m eager to discover how the majority of American society feels about it. So, I set out to investigate.
The Confederate flag has become the focus of fierce controversy over the past decade or more with intense feelings on either side. Howard Dean, a contender for the Democratic nomination for President, recently fueled fires when he alluded to the stereotype surrounding the flag. In an event last year, he said, "White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals on the back ought to be voting with us, and not [Republicans]...." Fellow Democrats, Joseph Lieberman and John Kerry admonished Dean’s reference to “one of the most divisive, hurtful symbols in American history" (“Dems”). Unquestionably, it is a sensitive issue. Of course there are various perspectives in different parts of the country, but, not surprisingly, support for the flag is more passionate in the South. In that region of the country, it is more often viewed as a stirring symbol of southern heritage – an icon that has been misinterpreted and misused over time. Despite the strong feelings coming from the South, I believe that the majority of American society finds it offensive, divisive, and demeaning to certain groups. In fact, after my study is complete, I anticipate finding that more people consider it a symbol of racism and bigotry than of Southern heritage and patriotism. Bear in mind that my contention comes after taking into account that most of the people I poll will probably be from Missouri, a state where opinion was split during the civil war. I also expect to find that it makes most people feel alienated more than they feel camaraderie with Confederate flag-wavers. In addition, I expect to find that there is a pattern corresponding to age. Of the people that I poll, I believe that people over 40 years old have more respect for the Confederate flag than do people younger than 40. I attribute this to the recent trend of condemning bigotry of all kinds in our society and its affect on younger people. Now my goal is to prove whether my hypotheses are true or false.
As I was setting out to find my answers, I realized that in order to discover how the majority of American society feels about something, I first have to get a representative sample. This is where the problem arises. Getting a representative poll of the entire American Society is not an easy task. It’s not likely that I’ll be able to gather a fair sample of people from all parts of the country, although the likelihood is slightly higher because I’m located in the Plaza, one of the most culturally diverse parts of the Kansas City metropolitan area. My first plan was to go to a popular park where people from all parts of the city gather. I wanted to display a Confederate flag with a sign asking bystanders how it makes them feel. Surely it would attract attention, but because it is such a sensitive issue, it could be somewhat dangerous for me. So, instead, I am compelled to devise a questionnaire that I will give to people that I come in contact with at the university and at work. The poll will present the Confederate flag and ask a few questions about how it makes them feel. In order to test my hypothesis about age as a factor, I will poll 15 people over 40 and 15 people under 40.
After reviewing the results of the poll and analyzing the statistics of the 30 people I surveyed, I found that two-thirds (67%) of them lean toward the perception that people that display the flag are racist. They say that they feel alienated when they see the Confederate flag. On the other hand, less than one-fourth of those polled (23%) feel camaraderie with flag-wavers, regarding them as rebels, having traits consistent with the foundation of our country. Even though the Confederate flag has always been divisive, some people say that it is, in fact, a patriotic symbol. It reflects the attitude of the South that was fighting for the right to govern themselves – the same motivation in the formation of the United States. In addition to asking how it makes people feel, I asked what it symbolizes to them. Surprisingly, even though two-thirds of those I polled perceived flag advocates as racist, only half of them say it symbolizes racism, bigotry, or disloyal rebels. In contrast, the other half of the people I polled says it symbolizes Southern pride and heritage or patriotism. I was amazed at finding that as many as half of the people feel it is a favorable symbol, but I quickly discovered something peculiar. About half of those that view it positively (27% of the total) also say that it makes them feel alienated at the same time. Perhaps this is evidence that even though people understand what it means to strong believers, they recognize how hurtful and demeaning it can be to others.
Another notable observation about the poll results is that there is a pattern corresponding to age. My hypothesis that people over 40 years old have a higher opinion of the Confederate flag than do people younger than 40 was proved correct. While 73% of those under 40 feel alienated by flag-wavers, only 60% of those over 40 feel alienated. Also, 60% of younger people say it symbolizes racism, bigotry, or disloyal rebels as opposed to the 40% who say it symbolizes Southern pride and heritage or patriotism. In the people over 40, the numbers were reversed: 40% of them say it symbolizes racism, bigotry, or disloyal rebels and 60% say it symbolizes Southern pride and heritage or patriotism. I believe this is further evidence of a societal change. Perhaps the over 40 generation hasn’t as fully adjusted to society’s shift towards sensitivity and political correctness, ideas that have been engrained in the minds of later generations as early as elementary school.
Across the nation, supporters of the flag continually stress that the Confederate flag has been misused and misunderstood by much of the general public. As Steve Morgan, a Kansas City man explained, “Extremist groups like the Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan have adopted the flag as their symbol, but I don’t identify with them. This is one of the main reasons people misunderstand the Confederate flag. I think most people that are offended by it are simply uneducated about its history.” He went on to explain, “What it symbolizes to me is a right in the Constitution that says when you disagree with your government, you have the right to rise up against them in protest. We should never give up that right. It’s part of America; it’s what America’s about.” The flag particularly hits home to many in the working class like Morgan. He referred to a “prophetic” statement that General Lee made at the end of the war. “He said that if there’s ever another civil war, it will be between management and labor. Remember the old slave song, ‘I owe my soul to the company store?’ I feel like a slave, working for the system. That’s why I identify with the South. The North was like a corporate takeover and the South had a right to challenge that. The Confederate flag symbolizes standing up for what you believe in. That’s America.”
In May 1996, Alabama State Senator Charles Davidson distributed copies of a speech he intended to deliver to the Alabama Senate (Kuypers 27). In his speech, Davidson expressed his similar views on the Confederate flag. The “Confederate battle flag is the symbol of the right of the local people and the states to govern themselves and is flown in memory and honor of our Confederate ancestors and veterans who gave their lives for less government, less taxes and Southern independence” (33).
Floyd Cochran, a former 5th ranking member of the Aryan Nation and KKK member, is now an anti-hate activist. He discussed a different viewpoint on the symbolism of the Confederate flag with Community Action Against Racism:
Everywhere I went in the racist movement the Confederate flag was flown. Often times we hear or have been told that the confederate flag has to do with heritage. That it does - white privilege; a heritage that enslaved people and exploited people all in the name of white supremacy and the Confederacy. Today in the 21st century, racist organizations know that marching and waving the swastika isn't cool. However waving the confederate flag is still acceptable to many. In many ways the confederate flag has become the 21st century version of the swastika. The swastika didn't start out as a racist symbol of evil. Its origins are as a symbol of peace and well-being. Over the years it became known and seen as a symbol of hate - like the confederate flag. (“Why”)
Cochran explained that, although the Confederate flag may not have started as a symbol of hate, that is what it has evolved into.
In an article in Time magazine, the author talked to a black man named Dolphus Weary to see why he “was on the committee that recommended the removal of the Confederate symbol” from the Mississippi state flag (Lopez 66). He explained that “when he was growing up, that flag meant he wouldn’t ride the nice new bus to the better school. It meant he wouldn’t live on the right side of the tracks. It meant his relatives could cook and clean for white people but couldn’t sit at the same table. ‘And I was taught that the reason we seceded from the North was to maintain that system,’ Weary says.”
Carol Moseley-Braun, the first black woman to sit in the Senate, eloquently summarized her point of view in a memorable speech in 1993. “It is about racial symbols, the racial past, and the single most painful episode in American history…It is absolutely unacceptable to me and to millions of Americans, black or white, that we would put the imprimatur of the United States Senate on a symbol of this kind of idea” (Riley 30). Senator Heflin of Alabama was moved by Moseley-Braun’s comments. He said his “forebears ‘might be spinning in their graves, but we must get racism behind us. We must move forward. We must realize we live in America today.’”
Across America, the debate rages on. I set out to find out how most people felt about the Confederate flag, but I found that opinions are still all over the board. Even though my poll showed that the majority of people feel the flag is offensive and divisive, I cannot claim that my sample was an accurate representation of American society. While the age range of the people that I polled was fairly broad (fifteen were under forty years old, and fifteen were over forty), overall the sample I ended up with wasn’t very diverse. It turns out that 93% of the people I surveyed were from the Midwest. If I was able to poll more people from different parts of the country, I could claim that it better reflected the average national opinion. Despite the fact that it was not a diverse sample, the poll results were still fairly split. Generally speaking, though, my findings agree with my original hypotheses.
After researching the topic on a national level, I found that the vast majority of Americans feels that the Confederate flag should be left in the past. Although we can’t rewrite history, we must find a way to move beyond it and look towards the future. In a land like America, prided as the melting pot of various people and cultures, each with their own views, conflict is inevitable. But we can focus our energy on searching for ways to bring Americans together instead of perpetuating the cycle of bigotry and divisiveness. Some say to give the Confederate flag any public honor is offensive and divisive. It has even been suggested that the Confederate flag be encased in glass so that it never again flies on public property. Instead, we can fly the American flag, an inspiring symbol that encompasses all of us and embodies the spirit of patriotism and our great country. Although the Confederate flag will always have a place in our history books, museums, and old television shows like The Dukes of Hazzard, that’s where it should stay.
I chose to explore the symbolism of the Confederate flag because the issue has been on my mind lately. The Kansas City man that I interviewed, Steve Morgan, is my father. He and I recently had a conversation in which we debated the flag’s meaning and symbolism. He was trying to explain to me why he is such a strong believer and I was not doing a very good job of listening to his point of view. My opinion was that because it’s offensive to so many people, why do some people continue to defend it? I was trying to be the Devil’s advocate, as always, and convince my dad to think about it another way, but meanwhile I wasn’t getting his perspective. It was difficult for me to understand the Confederate flag advocates and their actions, which have been so offensive and demeaning to some. I couldn’t identify with their passionate feelings about a remnant of the past. Throughout my life, I have worked hard to consider all issues from more than one point of view, so I decided I needed to investigate further to see if other people feel like my dad does. I wanted to find out if it was a battle worth fighting.
Although previously I didn’t appreciate the significance of the flag in the minds of its supporters, I now have a much better understanding. Even though my opinion on the matter hasn’t changed much, the knowledge that I have obtained has given me a great deal more respect for the people that are so passionate about it, both in support and opposition. I came to the conclusion that it is not, in fact, a battle worth fighting. I’ve found that, for the most part, it is simply a big misunderstanding and that not many people are aiming to be offensive or demeaning. The problem hasn’t gone away, but I discovered that most people feel like I do and hope that we can soon move forward instead of dwelling on hurt feelings in the past.
“Dems Battle Over Confederate Flag.” CNN. 2 Nov. 2003. 12 Feb. 2004. <http://www.cnn.com/2003/ALLPOLITICS/11/01/elec04.prez.dean.confederate.flag>.
Kuypers, Jim A. “Charles Davidson: ‘The Confederate Battle Flag: A Symbol of Racism?’” Press Bias and Politics. Robert E. Denton, Jr. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2002.
Lopez, Steve. “Ghosts of the South.” Time. 30 Apr. 2001: 64-70.
Morgan, Steve. Interview. 19 Feb. 2004.
Riley, Michael. “Nixing Dixie.” Time. 2 Aug. 1993: 30.
“Why the Confederate Flag is a Racist Symbol.” Community Action Against Racism. 13 Feb. 2004. <http://www.caar.net/ConfederateFlagIsRacist.pdf>.